Capitals get great value on Kempny as free agent market thins further

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When it comes to Michal Kempny, the Washington Capitals seem to have found their own personal good-value goldmine.

First came the trade deadline, when the Capitals made what was at the time considered a low-level deal, nothing more than a depth addition, and fired a third-round pick the Chicago Blackhawks’ way in exchange for Kempny, who had averaged little more than 15 minutes per outing in the 31 games in which he was given the chance to appear. So, while it appeared the Pittsburgh Penguins, Tampa Bay Lightning or Winnipeg Jets were set to have swung the most impactful deadline deal by acquiring Derick Brassard, Ryan McDonagh (along with J.T. Miller) and Paul Stastny, respectively, it turned out it was actually the Capitals that found the most bang for their buck in Kempny.

And now, after reports surfaced of his signing Thursday, the Capitals have gone ahead and made official a tidy new deal with the blueliner. Washington announced Friday morning that Kempny, 27, has signed a four-year, $10-million contract — a $2.5-million annual average value, for those scoring at home — that will see the Capitals keep most of their Stanley Cup-winning blueline in tact. With Kempny signed, Washington now has every member of their top four — Kempny, John Carlson, Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov — inked ahead of next season with Christian Djoos and restricted free agent Madison Bowey waiting in the wings to round out the blueline.

Some will view the Kempy signing as an overpayment by Washington both in term and dollars, but the reality is that from the deadline onward, the Czech rearguard shone during his time as a Capital. His average ice time increased — first to 16:45 across 22 games in the regular season and then up to 17:42 in 24 games during the post-season — and so, too, did his role. He went from an on-again, off-again healthy scratch in Chicago to a fixture of the top four in Washington, and though he wasn’t trusted against top competition with the Blackhawks, but was tossed over the boards alongside Capitals’ No. 1 defenseman John Carlson for the duration of the playoffs. In fact, at 5-on-5, Kempny skated all but 49 minutes of his 400-plus playoff minutes alongside Carlson, often against the opposition’s best.

Statistically, maybe Kempny didn’t wow or generate much offensively in finishing the post-season with just two goals and five points across the two-dozen post-season games, but he sure picked his spots. Case in point: his insurance marker in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup final that stomped out a Vegas Golden Knights comeback bid and all but solidified Washington’s Stanley Cup victory. And though it didn’t show up on the scoresheet, he moved the puck well and did so efficiently.

It was for all those reasons, too, that Kempny was considered one of the hotter blueline commodities as the NHL’s signing season approached. Reports as the interview period opened were that several teams had shown interest in signing the rearguard, and given the thin crop of defensemen set to enter free agency, that wasn’t tough to believe. Chances are a four-year, $10-million deal is less than he could have received elsewhere, if not in term than most certainly in money. And there’s very real potential that this deal looks great for Washington in short order.

Though it’s a limited sample size, in part because he had a tough time consistently cracking the Blackhawks’ lineup and in part because his NHL career is only two seasons old, Kempny throughout his 128 games in both the regular and post-season has been underrated in his effectiveness. This past season, of the 174 defensemen with 700 minutes played at 5-on-5 during the campaign, Kempny ranked 71st with a 51 percent Corsi for percentage, 59th with a 51.6 percent shots for percentage and ninth with a 59.7 goals-for percentage. He also ranked 49th in scoring chances for percentage and 48th in high-danger scoring chances for percentage. If those numbers persist, he could be one of the better low-cost, second-pairing defenders in the entire league next season and for the duration of his deal.

And while that’s great news for the Capitals, it’s somewhat disastrous for the rest of the NHL clubs seeking some additional defenders to bolster their blueline in free agency. With Kempny off the market, here are the five next-best targets:

MIKE GREEN
The lone big-minute, high-scoring rearguard on the list, and Green still has some gas in the tank. The 32-year-old has reportedly had discussions with the Detroit Red Wings about returning next season, but he should draw interest from any team with some spending room who wants a power play quarterback who can be good for 30-plus points.

DAN HAMHUIS
He’s the wily veteran option. The 35-year-old had a tough go to start his tenure in Dallas, but he found his form last season as a second-pairing guy for then-coach Ken Hitchcock’s Stars. Teams likely aren’t going to want to pay big for the defender, but he can still chip in some offense and be reliable as a shutdown guy.

JOHN MOORE
The third-highest scoring defender on the market when it comes to total points, but only Green scored more goals (8) than the seven Moore fired home last season. Moore, 27, can skate well and could be the right fit for a team looking for a mobile, second-pairing guy. Chances are he can flirt with another 20-point campaign, too. Production from the blueline never hurts.

CALVIN DE HAAN
Given he carried a $3.3-million cap hit last season, saying de Haan, 27, is a sleeper free agent might not be accurate, particularly because he’s going to earn himself a nice payday. However, injuries limited him to 33 games last season, so he’s likely not front-of-mind for most armchair GMs. He had 12 points in his injury-limited 2017-18 campaign, though, and could be a sneaky-good pickup.

TOBY ENSTROM
Surely any Jets fans reading this will disagree given Enstrom’s hard luck in the post-season, but when healthy — and that has become increasingly rare over the past four campaigns — the 33-year-old can be a skillful puck-moving rearguard. Just don’t count on more than, say, 70 games out of him.

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